IMLS-funded WebERA Project Results

When IPI reached out for research partners to work with us on the IMLS-funded WebERA (Web-based Environmental Risk Analysis) project, the response was overwhelming. Over 180 institutions were interested in participating, but only fifteen could be included. In order to keep the other 165 interested partners informed about WebERA and other preservation research taking place at IPI, we developed Climate Notes, an e-newsletter focused on the storage environment in cultural institutions, which is currently sent to 1,060 individuals on a quarterly basis.

IPI's WebERA project was introduced in the first issue of Climate Notes, sent in June 2008. Responding to the key finding of the Heritage Health Index that environmental control is the highest need for collections preservation, the project was designed to investigate a novel web-based system for environmental risk analysis. A primary goal of the project was to work closely with research partners in ten museums and five libraries to create an online system for managing environmental data. The project built upon IPI’s extensive laboratory and field experience with environmental and energy issues, and incorporated new datalogger technology designed by IPI.

The site would provide automated data analysis using IPI's preservation metrics and environmental risk ratings, allowing users to truly understand the preservation quality of their storage areas and the risk of specific forms of decay. Access to the site via the web would make the information much more widely accessible within the institution and ensure that every user had access to the most up-to-date analysis tools.

In addition, this system would include a searchable database of information associated with each monitored location, such as the type of collections and materials present, the history of logger placement and upload, the mechanical system serving the space, and so on – bringing a wide range of relevant information together in one easily-accessible location. The range of search options would make comparison of preservation quality by any number of criteria possible. Users could search and compare storage areas by site, building, floor, collection type, material, air handling unit, etc. The site would automatically calculate the best storage location for your most vulnerable collections or match specific environments to specific material needs.

Research partners met with IPI in Rochester, NY in March 2008 to kick-off the project. A blog was used throughout the following year to communicate with research partners. Specific topics were posted every few months, introducing features of the site to be tried, tested and reviewed. In May 2009, the group met again to review collected data and guide future work on the final version (or versions) of the website.

There were no definitive answers to two of the project's initial research questions:

How much expertise and training is required to use and understand preservation metrics and environmental risk ratings?

Results vary. Some users understand and appreciate how helpful these ratings are. Others use them, but their institutions remain focused on time in and out of targeted temperature and humidity settings. For some people, the ratings are too simple and not technical enough, however others like them for the same reasons. We understand that we have to continue to teach people in the field how to use and understand the metrics and risk ratings on our websites, in our publications, and when giving presentations.

Part of the WebERA design philosophy was to encourage a more holistic, long-term view of managing the environment for preservation. IPI’s research, as well as research done by other preservation scientists, has shown that environmental risk analysis is a long-term process. While there are short-duration events that produce immediate and acute damage to collections, the vast majority of damaging conditions occur over months, years, and even decades. Environmental risk analysis is most accurate and reliable when it considers the seasonal cycle of winter dryness and summer heat and humidity, rather than a chiller failure or a daily temperature setback. However, the flat-line, target-based standard for managing the storage environment is deeply ingrained in the field and is difficult to overcome.

How much expertise and training is required to make meaningful adjustments to the mechanical system that will improve the preservation quality of the storage environment?

More work is needed here. It is particularly important to involve facility managers as part of the preservation team, which is a challenge at nearly all institutions. Both collection and facilities staff need a better understanding of which factors really matter to long term preservation—dew point settings and seasonal fluctuations—and how to adjust their mechanical systems to achieve the best results for the collection. We continue to address this in our publications and speaking venues.

We are working hard to get facilities staff more involved in working directly with collections staff on preservation issues. The importance and popularity of sustainability and energy savings provides an opportunity to bring these groups together to design new criteria for meeting the needs of preservation and instituting sustainable environmental practices. These issues also open the door to rethinking the straight line philosophy of managing the environment for preservation. Sustainability issues are coming to the forefront at many institutions and IPI's web-based data management system can easily be used to point out opportunities for reducing costs and slowing down energy consumption.

Another challenge is the desire for real-time data and alarms. Ethernet and/or wireless options for transmitting environmental data exist, and may save time and provide immediate access, but not without major expense and a host of technical problems. IPI’s director, James Reilly, is pursuing the possibility of developing a wireless system, which could be used with the PEM2, but has yet to find a solution that would work effectively.

Finally, institutions want more research-based information that they can base decisions about the environment on. To that end, IPI has started work on another IMLS-funded project titled Research on Energy Saving Opportunities in Libraries. During this project, we will be working with five partner libraries around the country. The libraries include: Birmingham Public Library (Birmingham, AL), Cornell University Library (Ithaca, NY), New York Public Library (New York, NY), University of California Library (Los Angeles, CA), and Yale University Library (New Haven, CT).

Each will develop work teams, which will include library, facilities and preservation administrators. Working with IPI staff and consultants, they will study the effect on both energy costs and preservation quality in storage during incremental shut downs of selected mechanical systems at each site.

We have applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Research and Development grant to develop Methodologies for Sustainable HVAC Operation in Collection Environments. If funded, this project will investigate the best methods to insure that library, archive, and museum collections are not harmed by short-term environmental fluctuations made in the name of reducing energy costs. Following up on earlier research activities, this project will include laboratory and field research, data modeling and analysis, on the effect of changes in temperature and RH settings on a variety of materials and collection types. The work will result in a field guide-style publication.

IPI also received an NEH Education & Training grant which will allow us to present the latest research and field practice in museums and libraries in a series of Sustainable Preservation Practices for managing Storage Environments workshops. Five regional workshops, five regional webinars and four general webinars will be held between July 2010 and June 2011. Our goal is to educate collection care staff in cultural institutions to avoid risks to collections while they support sustainability efforts and pursue opportunities for energy cost reduction. This two-year project enjoys collaborative support from a number of regional preservation organizations who will help publicize the workshops and webinars.

We are grateful to IMLS, NEH and our research partners for their help and guidance with these important projects. The resulting group of environmental tools and resources will provide IPI with the resources needed to continue our research and educational activities.